AT&T aims to fill gaps in wireless network

Alison Hall, AT&T's wireless chief in the Carolinas, has made a study of mobile phone dead spots.

They can represent lost revenue or a solid long-term business decision.

It's her job to figure out which ones to revive first.

“We have a lot to get covered, and it's a matter of making sure we build cell sites where we earn enough return on that investment so we can afford to build more,” she said.

As a relative newbie to the Carolinas wireless market, AT&T has some catching up to do in building its network, Hall said.

The company relies on a divide-and-conquer strategy that in the short run sacrifices some areas in exchange for building up profitable markets where populations are thicker, such as Charlotte.

AT&T is focusing on Charlotte, having opened its only Carolinas AT&T Experience store in the SouthPark area where it recently released the new Apple iPhone. A second store is scheduled to open in the fall at the uptown EpiCentre development.

The company is focusing on the local Charlotte network to build market share by cutting down on poor or dropped calls. Nearly 85 new cell sites are scheduled to go up in the Carolinas this year, including more than 30 for the Charlotte area.

Hall, a 43-year-old corporate vice president, spoke to the Observer last week to shed light on the telecom giant's business strategy in the Carolinas, where it battles longtime players Verizon and Alltel. Questions and answers were edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. Why in 2008, with all this technology, do we still have dropped calls?

There are lots of different aspects to it. The network is a living, breathing thing. So as certain things build up, you can start to have gaps in your network. We need to build the earnings of the business, so we did that big broad coverage to make sure all the roadways and secondary roadways in the Carolinas were covered.

Some of those are not profitable, and so we had a little bit of a financial squeeze. But now we're going back and reinforcing some of our major metropolitan areas and the major destination areas, such as military bases and schools. It's a constantly building process, and our competition is doing it, too.

Q. You're in charge of everything wireless?

AT&T has 27 vice president/general managers across the country. Each of us manages the profitability of our area, which creates a great structure because you're kind of in competition with your peers, as well as with your competitors. It's a great way to share best practices. There's so much data that when you see someone else performing a little bit better, you can figure out what they're doing.

Q. Do they really want to share the best practices?

There are some who are a little more, well, they don't tell you much when you ask them. But for the most part that's how you learn.

Q. How is the Carolinas region different in terms of delivering wireless?

First of all, we're late to the marketplace. We're building our networks to try and catch up. In Georgia, we're leading in market share. But the demographics are different in the Carolinas. You have major metro areas and then you have lots of rural space. Part of my job is to make sure we do this profitably because cell towers cost a lot of money.

Q. So you can't go out and build more cell towers unless you know for sure it's going to be profitable?

We've been leading in gross penetration, pulling in new customers. But because our network is not as strong, we don't tend to keep them as long. We really have improved a lot. I don't want to make it seem like we're struggling. But it's a process. In the Carolinas, we're trying to take more position, so it's a fun job because you're kind of the underdog trying to make it to the top.

Q. What is the ultimate goal?

In this business with penetration up at 80-90-100 percent, it's a switchers game. You got to do something to help people realize that something's better, something's different.

If you have compelling products like the iPhone, that certainly helps, but most people care about the network. Now, it's really about suburban coverage.

You look at what people are really buying and it's a mini-computer (phone) to download all sorts of applications. They use it whether in the home, at work or at some destination point.

Before you just had to worry about roads or where people worked. Now, you really have to make sure it's robust at home. A lot of people are using this instead of their land lines. So the realization has been that we want people to be wireless with their mini-computers wherever they go.